From Florida soil grow the roots of what may be the next generation of sustainable communities.
In the heart of the Panhandle, surrounded by a field of tall grass, two lone figures ponder the future―theirs and ours. Here, miles from the nearest town, highway, or beach, Julia Starr Sanford and Bruce White kindly appease a couple of visitors who want to take their photograph in the middle of this green and brown expanse.
As a gentle morning breeze bends the grass and as cotton-puff clouds wallow in the blue above, Bruce points out an area of tamped-down grass where a deer had perhaps enjoyed the same scenery earlier. Julia walks over, looks down and then up to where the land and sky intersect at the edge of this open space. “When we first brought people here to discuss the development,” she says, “they thought we would fill in these fields with buildings. But much of this is what we’ll preserve. Some of it will be converted back to farmland; other parts will be left just as you see it now―wild and open.”
A Big Leap
This is the land Bruce and Julia call Sky, a planned community to be built in Calhoun County about an hour southwest of Tallahassee. Sky may signal the latest evolution in traditional neighborhood developments. Scheduled for groundbreaking this spring, it’s a largely untested concept that has become a defining project for these two Floridians, who, as the principals behind White Starr, Inc., have invested considerable time, energy, and money into its development. Talking to them, however, one gets the impression they felt they had no choice―that the creation of such a community was their calling.
To help ensure Sky is a success, Julia and Bruce assembled a team of architects, builders, and thinkers. They’ve heeded valuable lessons from old-world farming villages and New Urbanism communities and paired those concepts with the latest sustainable energy technologies and Green-living practices. In short, plans call for residents to take part in growing their own food, to live in neighborhoods made up entirely of homes that are certified by Leadership Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and―perhaps in the community’s most striking break from current high-end developments―to create their own energy. Sky will be “the first off-the-grid luxury town built in this country,” says Bruce.
“Sky is a big leap forward,” says Alys Beach Andrés Duany, whose Miami firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) is partnering with Julia and Bruce on the design of the community. Andrés is an advocate of New Urbanism and a key planner for communities such as Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Alys Beach. “The other places we’ve developed are implicitly environmental―using native vegetation and encouraging walking rather than driving, among other elements,” he says. “Sky will be intrinsically environmental. It’s more self-sustaining because of the farming component and the energy technologies they hope to employ.”
Culture and Acreage
At its core, Sky will be something of a high-end farm and garden community. It will have amenities such as horseback riding and tennis facilities, but 154 of its 571 acres will be designated as agricultural. Think Rosemary Beach or Alys Beach with life centered around farms and gardens instead of sand and surf.
Julia, a designer who has worked on projects ranging from planned communities to feature films, splits her time between Amelia Island and Rosemary Beach. Bruce, a developer and systems analyst, lives in Rosemary Beach. Both emphasize the need to preserve farm culture as well as acreage. “Sky is a model for rural development,” says Julia. “It prescribes a way of life that allows the last land frontier of the state―the farmlands and cattle ranches―to be preserved.”
While the Sky team plans to tend the larger tracts of land with the help of local farmers and students from area schools and colleges, part of Sky’s mission will be to help residents learn how to organically garden through the Sky Institute, an all-in-one teaching, research, and conference center that will be located in the community.
A Livable Laboratory
The Sky development team plans to not just employ the latest energy technologies when building begins, but also to help develop and test more of them as time passes. For starters, Sky, in conjunction with Florida State University’s Center for Advanced Power Systems, received a $1.8 million grant from the state to be used to study and implement a plan for utilities in the town.
Among the technologies under consideration are a solar energy plant, a system of cisterns that will be used as an auxiliary water source, and a chiller plant that will pump cold water to all buildings for an ultra-efficient air-cooling system. The community will also serve as something of a laboratory for new sustainable energy technologies. “We have plans for five villages,” says Bruce. “Each village will have a three-year build-out from start to finish. Because of that, each successive village will be able to use the next generation of technologies.”
For and of The Ages
Sky isn’t, however, only about the latest technologies. Sky’s five villages, which will encompass slightly more than half of the total developable area, will be surrounded and separated by agricultural land and open space. As planned, the villages will offer home sites ranging in size from 125 of an acre to 3 acres. Julia will direct much of the design protocol for Sky. “I studied and lived in Europe when I was young, and I was struck by the permanence of the buildings and public gardens,” says Julia. “It is environmentally responsible to build structures that last. We hope to create buildings that last a millennium. “Sky is an opportunity for Florida to take a leadership role in the implementation of solutions for a sustainable world,” she adds. “Hopefully, in 20 years, Sky will have inspired hundreds of similar communities.” •
The Sky Institute
According to its developers, one of Sky’s cornerstones will be the Sky Institute. An all-in-one teaching, research, and conference center to be built on 2 acres, the institute will provide a facility for research and development of various sustainable living practices. “The Institute, at its core, will be there to provide a research arm for the basic ideas that Sky is pursuing,” says Steve Mouzon, director of the New Urban Guild who is on the board of the Sky Institute.
In addition to developing new environmentally friendly energy technologies, organic farming techniques, and other Green-living practices, the institute will also work to further hone the definitions for sustainable communities and buildings. Here’s what Steve and the institute are working with now.
A sustainable community must embody the following characteristics.
- Feedable: It must be able to feed its residents.
- Serviceable: All daily needs must be within walking distance.
- Accessible: Whether they’re doctors, teachers, or emergency personnel, people who provide the services must live nearby.
A sustainable building must embody the following characteristics.
- Lovable: “It must be lovable,” says Steve, “or it gets carted off to a landfill.”
- Durable: “We must conceive of creating millennium buildings again.” But, Steve adds, “the myth of no-maintenance is true if you plan on bulldozing it in 15 years.” Buildings must be cared for and adaptable, which leads to the next point…
- Flexible and recyclable: The interior must be adaptable so residents can accommodate new technologies.
- Frugal: Buildings must be efficient to decrease waste.
"The Land of Sky" is from the April 2008 issue of Florida Livings, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in Florida.